A Rabbit’s Eye View – Workshop with Noel Kingsbury on October 22nd, 2015

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Who were the real stars of last Thursday? The wonderful enthusiasm and communication skills of our speaker? The gorgeous late autumnal light? Our massed Persicaria vaccinifolia and Saxifrage fortunei?

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No, on reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst all of these were critical to such a successful day, the really important feature was the mix of gardeners who’d travelled to this remote part of the UK to learn and share with Dr. Noel Kingsbury and indeed each other. Several had driven over 100 miles, and so had to make more than a day of it. One of our happy band, a garden designer from Pennsylvania had even flown over from the USA to take part – and built a family holiday around this event. There was a warmth, enthusiasm and good humour to the whole day, which I think everyone benefited from.

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Such is the high regard for Noel’s pretty unique blend of knowledge, not just of gardens and their design, but more crucially of plant growth, ecology and their interactions – something one reads or hears about very rarely in the mainstream garden media. And a key subject in assessing how plants will perform in a garden setting over the medium to long term. As well as how much intervention is likely to be necessary to achieve one’s desired aims.

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When we’d thought about volunteering to host such an event we’d (typically) probably not thought as much as we should about how we would have coped in the atrocious weather that can sometimes hit around now. Although the day before was wet and windy, and played havoc with my attempts to keep paths leaf free, Thursday dawned dry and by the time the first folk were arriving, blue sky was beginning to appear.

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Noel kicked off with a discussion considering an imaginary plot of bare soil, and, left un- managed, how it would become colonised over 1, 2, 3, 5,10, 50 and 100 years. An intriguing way of thinking about firstly what natural trends we are seeking to combat or control in our role as garden designers and managers. ( A hint of the default 100 year dominant landscape plant in this part of the world  – a seedling oak at the base of a Japanese Maple, below)…

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Secondly of what strategies plants have to out compete or simply survive amongst their neighbours, and indeed thirdly the likely futility over the very long term (without generational garden management) of combating these natural ecological trends of plant succession.

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And very helpful ideas for any gardeners like us, who are facing the inevitable slowing down that comes with ageing, and want to try the steer the garden into a lower maintenance phase, without losing its inherent appeal. (How many different plant species inhabit the small section of ground above? How much weeding is necessary here? And what does it look like in April or May? See the end of post for more).

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I remember reading a letter in the RHS Garden magazine recently from a gardener nearing the point of having to let go of a garden lovingly created over 20 years, and then enjoyed for another 10, but now beginning to become too much to manage. When to let go? Perhaps we need to move into more of an enjoyment stage after 20 years of creating, and stop fiddling! Not that we haven’t enjoyed the journey so far…

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Group discussions followed together with a good power point talk to flesh out more about examples of different types of ‘perennials’. Just howperennial they might be, and how by examining growth and flowering habits gardeners can work this out for themselves, by considering taking the rabbit’s eye view of what the plant looks like at ground level. (Clonal Asters growing through Saxifrage below)…

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By lunchtime the weather was sufficiently sunny for many to take food outside to eat – pretty rare for us in late October, and later, the afternoon session took the form of a garden based walk looking at how we’ve used plants within the garden in a sometimes unique way based on the conditions which we have to deal with up here. Again we all learned much from Noel’s thoughts and ideas and group involvement. The day finished with more cakes and tea, before everyone headed home.

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Keen to try to find out what visitors thought about the day, we were very grateful to everyone for filling out a simple end of event questionnaire. Only 1 other participant had ever been on a garden based workshop before, and everyone ranked the day as both excellent, and also excellent value for money (from excellent, good, average, disappointing). And it was great that as well as making it non profit making, we were still able to donate part of everyone’s fee as a garden entrance charge to the National Gardens Scheme charities.

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Would we ever do it again? Well Noel has clearly led such workshops all over the world, and he would be a very difficult act to follow, such were his knowledge, teaching and communications skills. But it was such a success that maybe some similar event might happen again, perhaps at a different time of the year.

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